Good luck finding a sweeter, more innocent movie in 2022: “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is a ravishing adaptation of the classic 1958 novel by Paul Gallico (“The Adventure of Poseidon”), in which a benevolent person pursues his goals, which are always slightly out of reach. It’s a formula tailor-made for audience satisfaction, and when done right, it’s nothing short of a miracle.
“Mrs. Harris,” directed by Anthony Fabian (“Louder Than Words”), tells the story of Ada Harris (Lesley Manville), a cleaning lady in 1950s London. Her husband disappeared during the war and she has spent the last decade and a half waiting for his return, doing hard jobs for rich people who don’t like her. When news of her husband’s fate finally arrives, Ada Harris realizes it’s time to stop waiting and follow her own dreams.
Ms. Harris’ dream seems much simpler than it is: she wants to buy a Christian Dior dress, an incredibly expensive purchase for which she has no practical use. She’s not going to the Oscars or a royal wedding. She just thinks Christian Dior dresses are beautiful, and she wants to have one — and if she saves and saves, she might be able to afford it.
Fabian does a wonderful job creating a world where people are lovely but circumstances are impossible. The first part of “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is unusually long but absolutely vital, as Fabian (who co-wrote the screenplay with a trio of writers) understands that the harder it is for Mrs. Harris to get to Paris , the more satisfying it will be when she finally does. And the harder Mrs. Harris works, the more wonderful it is to see good karma returning to her and giving her exactly what she wants.
The filmmakers also understand that if we, the audience, don’t share Ms. Harris’s obsession with Christian Dior fashion, the movie won’t work on an emotional level. Endless credit, then, goes to costume designer Jenny Beavan (“Cruella”) for crafting the crisp, delicate dresses, and to cinematographer Felix Wiedemann for finding all the rays of light that make them sparkle. The dresses in “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” aren’t just props; they’re kind of alive, and they bounce in people’s arms with the urgency of adorable kittens wanting to be adopted.
Ms. Harris’ story doesn’t end when she gets the money, of course. She still has to go to Paris, where she can’t afford a hotel room, and walk into Christian Dior with her everyday outfit. This is not nothing, since Dior is betting on glamor and exclusivity. In her path stands the grumpy Claudine Colbert (Isabelle Huppert, perfectly vicious), but still opens the door to her the sympathetic accountant of Dior, André (Lucas Bravo, “Emily in Paris”) and the model Natasha (Alba Baptista, ” Warrior Nun”), who secretly flatter each other.
Things get complicated when Mrs. Harris discovers that, although she has enough money for the dress, the words high fashion means she can’t just take one off the rack. She has to stay in Paris for weeks even though she spends every penny on a luxury item. Fortunately, her dynamic spirit, good nature and helpful interfering ways foster fabulous goodwill from (almost) everyone she meets, and after working incredibly hard for an incredibly long time, “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” gradually shapes her with all the beautiful things she might need.
It is perhaps the ultimate fantasy, that all good deeds are rewarded; making the world of Mrs. Harris just punishing enough to spark suspense, but just decent enough to work, is a balancing act that director Fabian deftly manages throughout the film.
“Mrs. Harris” doesn’t pretend the evils of the world don’t exist. The film is packed with classy commentary, sometimes surprisingly. The beautiful streets of Paris are constantly choked with trash due to a workers’ strike. And although Dior’s wealthy clients mock Ms. Harris for achieving her job, accountants are desperate to make her happy because, unlike all those wealthy royals, politicians and celebrities, she actually plans to pay them, and in cash, no less.
Lesley Manville wears the film beautifully – with perfect help from Jason Isaacs, Ellen Thomas, Lambert Wilson, Huppert, Baptista and Bravo – and refuses to make a second of her performance seem shallow or twee. If we don’t believe in Mrs. Harris, we can’t accept any part of this mid-20th century fairy tale, and we never doubt her for a second.
It’s a rare thrill to watch a charming movie that comes naturally through its charms. “Ms. Harris Goes to Paris” knows that plush is much more satisfying when it has depth, so you can really sink into it and feel the overwhelming comfort. Now let’s all hope for a crossover sequel where Mrs. Harris and Paddington Bear compete to see who can be more pleasantly enjoyable. (My money is on whoever wears Dior.)
“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” opens in US theaters July 15.